Saturday, June 5, 2010

Free-market religion lost in oil spill

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal talks to the media in front of a Brown Pelican mired in oil on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast, Thursday, June 3, 2010. AP Photo / Charlie Riedel

May 31, 2010 | By Leonard Pitts

"There has never been a challenge that the American people, with as little interference as possible by the federal government, cannot handle."

— Bobby Jindal, March 24, 2009

That was then.

This is now: 11 people dead in an oil rig explosion, fragile marshlands damaged, perhaps irreparably, uncalculated millions (billions?) in lost revenue for the tourism and fishing industries, and a short attention span nation transfixed by a compelling image from a deep sea camera, brown gunk billowing out from a hole in the ocean floor, Things Getting Worse in real time.

And Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, off whose coast this tragedy is centered, is singing a new song, starkly at odds with what he said last year in a speech before the Republican faithful. Now he's BEGGING for federal "interference." He wants federal money, federal supplies, wants the feds to help create barrier islands to protect Louisiana wetlands from oil.

Not to pick on Jindal. He is but one prominent voice in a chorus of Gulf state officials who once preached the virtues of tiny government but have discovered, in the wake of this spreading disaster, the virtues of government that is robust enough, at a minimum, to help them out of a jam.

One hears pointed questions about President Barack Obama's engagement or lack thereof in the unfolding crisis. One hears accusations that the government was lax in its oversight duties and too cozy with the oil industry it was supposed to be regulating. One hears nothing about deregulation, about leaving the free market alone to do its magic.

You know what they say: it's all fun and games till somebody gets hurt. Well, the Gulf Coast is hurt, hurt in ways that may take years to fully assess, much less repair. And the sudden silence from the apostles of small government and free markets is telling.

The thing is, their argument is not fundamentally wrong. Who among us does not believe government is frequently bloated, inefficient and bound by preposterous rules? Who among us does not think it is often wasteful, hideously complex and redundantly redundant?

Yes, government is not perfect. Nor is it perfectible. As adults, we should understand that. Any bureaucracy serving 309 million people and representing their interests in a world of 6.8 billion people, is likely always to have flaws. Thus, fixing government, making it more streamlined and responsive, is and will always be an ongoing project. …

Free-market religion lost in oil spill

The legacy of 'drill, baby, drill'

Two women look on as contract workers clean oil globs from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill blanket a beach in Pensacola Beach, Florida June 4, 2010. REUTERS / Lee Celano

By Julian Zelizer, Special to CNN
June 1, 2010 9:53 a.m. EDT

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- The impact of the oil spill in the Gulf Coast is starting to be made vivid by the steady flow of still images and video that capture this catastrophe. For example, Phillippe Cousteau, the grandson of Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, dove into the oil spill, wearing protective gear. He captured horrifying video images of what has been taking place beneath the sea.

A debate is already unfolding about whether President Obama has been effective in his response. Is this Obama's Katrina, as some commentators have asked? The president has come under fire, primarily from Republicans, but also from a growing number of environmental advocates, for being too slow to act.

Recent news reports have revealed the Obama administration has been as negligent in its oversight of drilling as the previous administration.

The debate over President Obama's performance will continue, and his success or failure at stopping the gusher will determine how much damage this disaster inflicts on his presidency.

But there is another, more significant, question that Democrats and Republicans in Congress must address -- and that is the policy origins of this disaster.

Indeed, one of the most important aspects of Katrina was not simply how President Bush did or did not handle the aftermath of the hurricane, but rather, how American politicians in both parties had allowed a once-vibrant city to decay so dramatically over the past decades. Many Americans were shocked to see the kind of devastating poverty in which so many New Orleans residents lived.

With the BP spill, the question revolves around deregulation. As with the financial meltdown in the fall 2008, the oil spill highlights the cost of weakening regulations -- in this case, those rules that had been adopted to safeguard the environment.

For over four decades, some conservatives and centrist Democrats have waged war on the environmental infrastructure that was put into place during the 1960s and 1970s (including under Republican President Nixon).

At first, President Reagan hoped to directly overturn as many environmental regulations as possible. He appointed James Watt as secretary of Interior and Anne Gorsuch as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, both of whom opposed many aspects of the environmental movement.

Yet Reagan's efforts to eliminate the regulatory apparatus largely failed. He ran up against an environmental movement that was far more powerful than he expected. His efforts against the regulations in fact stimulated the movement to become even more active.

The next strategy for his administration was to start weakening oversight, using administrative decisions to protect industry and undermine the quality of the agencies responsible for these programs. Watt and Gorsuch, for example, didn't fight against proposed budget cuts that would clearly strain the capacity of their employees and accepted cost-benefit analyses that favored industry.

Gorsuch boasted that under her leadership, the EPA reduced the size of the clean water regulations manual from six inches to half an inch The EPA didn't make sure that companies were complying with regulations such as requirements to use modern pollution control equipment.

This pattern continued under President George W. Bush. As the contributors of my forthcoming book, The Presidency of George W. Bush: The First Historical Assessment (Princeton University Press) have argued, Bush administration officials frequently rejected scientific expertise when making decisions and staffed bureaucratic positions with people who were not sympathetic to the goals of their own organization. …

The legacy of 'drill, baby, drill'

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